The signs covering a music room wall at Lakeside Middle School in Millville are a montage of musical humor: “Those are sharps, not hashtags,” says one featuring Twitter’s famous # sign.
But Erika Zeiters’ students already know that. Some started music lessons at school as early as third grade, and almost all had started an instrument by fourth grade.
The result is Zeiters is blessed with three school bands of about 50 students each in sixth, seventh and eighth grades. During a recent class, the seventh-graders expertly practiced the Introduction to Mozart’s Symphony No. 40.
“It is awesome to have kids who are so great by seventh grade,” Zeiters said as they finished.
Millville has remained committed to offering instrumental music lessons in elementary school. But statewide, as state aid has remained flat and property taxes have been capped, music programs have suffered, especially in the most underfunded districts.
Lacking public funds, schools have turned to band boosters, community members and online fundraising. And after years of cuts, the arts may be making a comeback.
Several years ago, the Egg Harbor Township school board reluctantly eliminated instrumental music lessons in fourth grade to balance the budget. Fifth grade also was cut, but later restored.
“Students learn best at younger ages,” board member Pete Castellano, who oversees the budget committee, wrote in an email. He said students who can’t afford private lessons are the hardest hit.
“Kids never get those years back,” he said.
When the high school needed a new piano, the Community Partnership for EHT schools donated a concert grand.
Zeiters used the website Donors Choose to raise $1,900 to buy a new bass drum for Lakeside School. James Robbins, 13, was the first to play.
“When you hit it, it vibrates,” he said. “You can feel it.”
Robbins started playing bells and then drums in fourth grade. He picked them, he said, because they reflect his personality.
“All the time I’m banging on stuff,” he said.
Zeiters also has appealed to the community to donate used instruments, which has been successful in supplementing the brass and woodwind instruments that make up the majority of the band.
“We never have enough clarinets and flutes,” she said. “We try to keep a few spares in case one breaks.”
She said even if donated instruments need repair, the school works with Coles Music Service in Gloucester County for repairs and trade-ins.
Atlantic City schools have benefited from the generosity of former state Sen. William Gormley and his wife, Ginny, who attended the high school. The couple started Friends of Music almost a decade ago. Between some fundraisers and donations, he estimated they have raised some $200,000 for instruments for local schoolchildren.
“Ginny doesn’t like presents, and she always remembered the orchestra program at the high school,” Gormley said, explaining how Friends of Music began with a donation in lieu of holiday gifts.
They are currently partnering with the music academy program at Sovereign Avenue School.
“The teachers put in so much of their time,” Gormley said. “We just do whatever they tell us they need.”
The Bay-Atlantic Symphony has also operated a music mentorship program in Atlantic City schools.
Bob Morrison, executive director of the New Jersey Arts Education Partnership, said while challenges remain, arts programs may be growing again after years of cuts.
“Music educators are creative and resourceful,” he said. He said foundations such as VH1 Save the Music, the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation and Little Kids Rock have helped schools fill the gaps and raise the profile of the value of music education.
Galloway Township has maintained its music program, but also relies on fundraisers, grants and donations to supplement the budget, Superintendent Annette Giaquinto said. The district is celebrating Music in Our Schools month with a series of concerts by the music teachers.
A Rutgers-Eagleton poll last fall, which kicked of an ArtsEdNow campaign, found 95 percent of respondents believe an education in the arts is very or somewhat valuable. But in South Jersey, fewer respondents believed their children receive enough opportunities in the arts.
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In 2008, the state Board of Education mandated all students must get at least one year of arts instruction as a high school graduation requirement. But a 2011 arts education census found at the elementary level, the percentage of schools with full-time music teachers had dropped from 94 percent in 2006 to 77 percent.
Morrison is currently compiling the results of the 2016 arts education census, which will be released in September. He sees renewed interest.
“There was a period from 2000 to 2015 when there was a period of neglect,” Morrison said. “We had the recession, and PARCC tests and so much change. But now the pendulum is swinging back.”
Morrison cites the conversion of STEM — or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — education, to STEAM, to include the arts, as recognition of their value in many disciplines.
“If schools provide programs students want, it reduces absenteeism,” he said. “Music is something students really look forward to.”
Zeiters can testify to that. She has taught in Millville for eight years, and even with tight budgets considers herself lucky for the support music receives. She has watched the high school band grow from fewer than 50 students to more than 100, largely due to a commitment by teachers and the district to develop musicians at the lower grades.
Her school recently got three oboes, and Naizamere Garcia, 12, volunteered to switch from clarinet.
“I like that you can create music,” he said of his interest in learning an instrument.
Zeiters led the students through the Mozart piece a second time.
“You’re all good at forte (loud),” she said. “We still have to work on piano (soft).”
A third time through and she was happier.
“That was much cleaner,” she said. “But let’s do it one more time. We don’t want to make Mozart roll in his grave.”